Very Recent History: A Dispiriting End To An Earlier Decade

This weekend, Sunday, December 6th, marks the 40th anniversary of Altamont, the free concert the Rolling Stones put on at a speedway outside San Francisco to end their U.S. tour in 1969. It was meant to be like Woodstock. At a press conference before the event, Mick Jagger said, “It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.” More than 300,000 people attended. But things went very wrong. Hired as security, but full of acid and beer, the Hells Angels motorcycle club were not on the same blissed-out flower-children vibe as much of the crowd. Rather, they beat people with leaded pool cues.

The heaviest violence occurred right in front of the stage. In the worst of it, a horrible moment captured on film by Al and David Maysles, who were shooting footage for their documentary Gimme Shelter (which, if you have not seen, by all means do: it is the best movie ever made about rock n’ roll), 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death after pulling out a gun. Music journalist Stanley Booth witnessed the incident and wrote about it in his book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (which is florid and nasty, and one of the best books ever written about rock n’ roll).

“There was a sudden movement in the crowd at stage left. I looked away from Mick and saw, with that now familiar instant space around him, bordered with falling bodies, a Beale Street nigger in a black hat, black shirt, iridescent blue-green suit, arms and legs stuck out at crazy angles, a nickle-plated revolver in his hand. The gun waved in the lights for a second, two, then he was hit, so hard, by so many angels, that I didn’t see the first one-short, Mexican-looking, the one who had led me onstage?-as he jumped. I saw him as he came down, burying a long knife in the black man’s back. Angels covered the black man like flies on a stinking carcass. The attack carried the victim behind the stack of speakers, and I never saw him again.”

The concert has since become symbolic of the end of the ’60s, the day the hippie dream melted into a bad, bad trip.